The Bankrupt Politics of ‘Again’ (& Why I Voted in the 2020 US Election)

‘Make America Great Again’. While this slogan has become synonymous with the political rise of Donald Trump, he is not the first to have used it. During the Third Session of the 76th United States Congress (1940), Republican Senator Alexander Wiley (1884-1967) said it in a speech. It featured in some campaign materials for the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater (1909-1998). In his 1980 campaign for president, Republican Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) used the phrase, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’.

This slogan has not been limited to Republican use. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton used the phrase in several speeches and reiterated the phrase during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I am compelled to reflect on its meaning. If someone is proposing to make America great again, the question arises, ‘When was America great?’

When considering America’s historical greatness, a return to the ‘Founding Fathers’ has become a conservative rally cry. If we are going with the Founding Fathers, we might ask, ‘Who were these people?’ For a start, as the name implies, they were all men. Additionally, they were all white men. Oh, and they were all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic) white men. Also, they were all Protestant white men from the upper echelons of society.

According to notable American historian Richard B. Morris (1904-1989), the most significant and influential of these white Protestant upper-class men were John Adams (1735-1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804) John Jay (1745-1829), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836) and George Washington (1732-1799).[1] Of these seven men, five owned enslaved people at various points. Of those five, Franklin’s views tended toward abolitionism by the mid-1760s. In later life, Washington also expressed unease with the institution of slavery. Jay and Madison were owners of enslaved people and Jefferson was perhaps the chief slaver among the Founding Fathers, owning more than 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime.


A brief aside on the United States Constitution: In short, the United States Constitution is an oddity. Brilliant and revolutionary as it might have been when it came into force in 1789, it is very much a document of the late eighteenth century, warts and all. Consider the opening words, ‘We the people…’ Of course, this really means ‘We the white men…’

The United States Constitution is the oldest national constitution still in use. Some might see that as evidence of its strength. Some might argue that subsequent amendments have made up for any of its weaknesses. A look at the 27 amendments that have been passed by Congress and ratified by the requisite number of states demonstrates how insufficient this procedure is. Between 1971, with the passage of the 26th Amendment (‘The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age’) and the present day, only one other amendment has passed. The 27th Amendment (ratified in 1992) states simply, ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.’ The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress by 1972 and sent to states for ratification. This amendment includes the following three sections:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Although the requisite number of states (38) approved the ERA in January 2020, two deadlines had already passed (1979 and 1982) and the amendment now resides in legal Limbo. Has society changed so little since 1971 that the 27th Amendment has been the only revision suitable for ratification? Maybe the whole project of the United States Constitution requires a revisit…


In the decades between the founding of the United States and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), political stances concerning the institution of slavery depended largely on economic interests and not on genuine regard for equality. Of course, there were small groups of passionate abolitionists, especially among communities of Quakers. For their part, both Adams and Hamilton abhorred slavery. But it can be argued that the abolitionism of many (if not most) Northern politicians was fuelled by the desire to weaken the power of the Southern states, whose economies depended on the labour of enslaved people.

There seems to be a common myth among conservatives (especially among Confederate sympathisers) that the Civil War was about the rights of states. While this may have some truth, the primary ‘right’ for which the Southern states fought was the ‘right’ to own other human beings. There is no getting around this reality. I argue that the political tensions between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War were, by and large, issues concerning economics and power and at the heart of that, the institution of slavery. I would have to spend hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words outlining these tensions, but I will just point to the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) for now. And I have not even mentioned the horrific treatment of Amerindians.

So can we argue that America was great when it was founded? If you are a Protestant white man with economic power, then yes. It is possible that these would have been great times for you.

Still, there are others who wish to show some sensitivity, awareness or at least, nuance and will argue that America was great after the Civil War. Of course, this ‘greatness’ would only be experienced by a select few, namely, white men. It was not until 1870 that black men were given the right to vote. This is not to say that black men were able to vote. Voter suppression has a long and successful history in the United States. This does not even begin to scratch the surface the institutional oppression of people of colour and of women in the United States (de facto institutional segregation endures today). If you, like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, et al, believe that institutional racism in the United States does not exist, consider yourself very fortunate – you have not experienced that reality, at least, not from the perspective of the oppressed. But simply because you do not believe that to be born as a person of colour does not place one at a significant disadvantage does not dismiss this reality for tens of millions of residents of the United States. Maybe it would be enlightening to listen to their stories.

What if we fast-forward to passage of the 19th Amendment (1920)? This gave women the right to vote in the United States. Well, not all women. This was a better time for white women. It was not until the landmark Voting Rights Act (1965) that voting became universal, in theory. Believe it or not, voter suppression continues to this day. It is even touted by the Executive Branch of the US Government: if the Trump Administration is harping on about ‘widespread voter fraud’ concerning to mail-in ballots (a proven myth), why have both Donald Trump and Mike Pence encouraged their followers to turn up at polling stations (where people vote in-person) to intimidate voters?

So when was America great? This seems to be where reasonable discussion really starts to break down. There are plenty of other key political moments before which one might call the greatness of America into question. For example, I am thinking of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), granting women the right to choose what to do with their bodies and of the long road to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The issues of women’s rights and the rights of queer people seem to be split right down party lines between the Democrats and the Republicans.

For those who want to ‘make America great again’, here is a question: is America less great when individuals are afforded the rights to choose what they want to do with their own bodies and the freedom to embrace their own sexuality and gender? Perhaps you are a staunch feminist (one who believes that all genders should have equal rights in society) who also believes that a foetus is a living human being and should be afforded all the rights of a human being. I can understand that perspective. That being said, there is nothing in the legalisation of abortion that forces anyone to undergo that traumatising experience against their will. Perhaps if American society cared for people after birth (for example, through proper social and health care), the abortion figures, relatively modest as they are, would change. Of course, I am trying to be as sympathetic to the anti-abortion lobby as possible here since I can comprehend some of the philosophical tensions that can come into play. Still, part of me fears that the issue of abortion in the United States is more tied to fanatical patriarchy (which has hijacked religion) than genuine philosophical reflection.

So you want to make America great again? When was America great? I am of the belief that there has never been a time in American history when more human rights and freedoms (I am assuming that this is a suitable measure of ‘greatness’) have been exercised than in this last decade. This is not to say that America is ‘great’ in the present. I will explain what I mean by this in a moment.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I cannot help but believe that anyone who holds to the notion that the United States was once a ‘greater’ nation than it has been in this last decade has not suffered from true, institutional oppression.

I know that Donald Trump has some supporters who are people of colour, who are women, who are working class. One way I believe that he and others like him bid for the affections of certain people groups is through accusing other oppressed people groups of inflicting this oppression. Are you a white, American-born man living in relative poverty? Why not blame this on the immigrants who come into the country to ‘steal your jobs’? (This is not even close to the worst things of which Donald Trump has accused immigrants.) Donald Trump and people like him thrive off of blaming others for society’s shortcomings. Perhaps it is not the immigrants who inflict damage to society (speaking economically, it is a fact that immigrants give far more to society than they take). Perhaps we should turn our gaze toward the powerful who have reaped unimaginable riches from the misfortune of others. What about those financiers who grew more wealthy as the housing market collapsed in 2008, forcing more than 2,000,000 foreclosures? What about the more recent example of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth has increased by more than $74 billion while American unemployment has skyrocketed? Neo-liberal capitalistic ideals propagate the myth that if one works hard one will receive just compensation – the ‘American Dream’. In reality, individual economic prosperity is more often the result of the circumstances of one’s birth or of random chance. While this lottery plays out, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States continues to increase.

Now I shall explain what I mean by suggesting that America might not be ‘great’ at present through an brief exploration of my personal faith and how it relates to my political views.

Some people might suggest that faith and politics should not mix. While I am in favour of the strict separation of Church and State, this is not because I believe that faith has nothing to say to politics. On the contrary, one of my theological heroes, Uruguayan Jesuit priest and theologian Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996) argues that the two are bound together:

Every theology is political, even one that does not speak or think in political terms. The influence of politics on theology and every other cultural sphere cannot be evaded any more than the influence of theology on politics and other spheres of human thinking. The worst politics of all would be to let theology perform this function unconsciously, for that brand of politics is always bound up with the status quo.[2]

By ‘theology’, Segundo is referring to the study of the divine – of God and of religion. The issue he has with the ‘status quo’ involves ideology. The status quo is the way things are, the state of affairs. In order to accept the way things are (or indeed, to hope for the way things were), one’s faith has to cohere with the ideologies of the present. For example, my faith compels me to desire equality among all human beings. Where I see inequality, such as racial, gender or sexual inequality, I am compelled to challenge the status quo.

In essence, this comes down to the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. I think of the writings of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Although an adherent to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, Bloch took it upon himself to revisit the Bible. In his studies, he did not find the ‘opium of the people’ (‘das Opium des Volkes’) observed by Marx in the Christian religion. While it is an established historical fact that the Christian faith had evolved from its primitive collectivist existence to adopt an institutional hierarchy (the institution against which Marx railed), Bloch finds within the Bible a Christianity that speaks for the oppressed against the status quo. For Bloch, this Christianity is one of atheism, that is, one in which the ideologies of power are challenged for the flourishing of the oppressed. In his 1968 book, Atheismus im Christentum (published in English as Atheism in Christianity in 1972), Bloch makes this case and concludes that, upon analysing the Christian Bible, the reputed motto inscribed on sixteenth-century German peasant leader, Florian Geyer’s sword—‘Nulla crux, nulla corona’, ‘No cross, no crown’—‘could be the motto of a Christianity free, at last, from alienation. And the far-reaching, inexhaustible depths of emancipation in those words could also serve as a motto for a Marxism aware of its depths.’[3]

In a similar way, I see my faith as one of committed and persistent challenge to the status quo. I turn to Jesus. From his birth to his resurrection, he is the living embodiment of what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) calls ‘the Offense’. While being the ‘God-Man’, Jesus is perceived by onlookers ‘as a mere human individual who comes into collision with the established order.’[4] He is a living affront to those who have most to lose through his existence.

Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 1.1-16) mentions five women (an oddity at that time): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Each one of these women would have been viewed with sexual suspicion, especially in the patriarchal, honour and shame culture of Palestine during the first century. Tamar disguised herself as a sex worker to sleep with her father-in-law (Judah). Rahab was understood to have been a sex worker by trade. Ruth was understood to have entered the bed of a man (Boaz) who was not her husband. Bathsheba fell pregnant with one man (David) while she was still married to another (Uriah). Then there is Mary, who conceived before she was married (Matthew 1.18).

From there, Jesus’ life only grows in offense to the status quo. John the Baptist preceded Jesus, preaching a radical message of the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. But Jesus’ ministry modelled a Messiah that most religious leaders (including John the Baptist) struggled to accept (Mathew 11.2-19). German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that ‘the appearance and activity of Jesus was a novelty which was bound to arouse resistance.’[5]

Throughout his life and ministry as recorded in the Gospels, Jesus makes speeches and performs actions that outrage the powerful constantly. The incident of his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-16) is one of the most well-known. Moltmann observes Jesus’ subversion against the national symbols of Israel and argues that ‘in view of the whole of his scandalous message’ it is the condemnation of Jesus as a ‘“blasphemer”, as a demagogic false Messiah’ that ultimately precipitates his execution.[6]


A brief aside on the crucifixion event: It is a common understanding among at least the Evangelical Christian sect that Jesus was crucified because that was God’s plan to save those who choose to believe in Christ from eternal conscious punishment (Hell). I have issues with seeing God’s ‘plan’ in this way. I also have issues with assuming that belief is a choice (the letter to the Church in Asia Minor, known as Ephesians, describes faith as a ‘gift’). At this stage, I will not get too wrapped up exploring my understanding of the nature of belief or of how seeing belief as a choice is actually a form of ‘earning’ the grace of God (I have explored this before). Elsewhere, my blog-mate Greg has explored at least one alternative to the belief in ‘eternal conscious punishment’. For my part—please do not let this put you, dear reader, off—I believe that the grace and love of God is so enormous that the inheritance of the kingdom of God is for all of us dirty sinners. What I really want to say here is that Jesus was crucified because he opposed the powerful. The build-up to his crucifixion is observed throughout the Gospels. Jesus says or does something, the powerful are offended and seek to have him killed. It happens again and again until, at last, they stir up a crowd in a murderous fervour and appeal to their Roman enemy—another insecure power broker—to send him to the cross. Food for thought.


And yet, Jesus’ subversive work did not end with his crucifixion. His next great affront to the status quo, according to the Gospels, was to subvert death itself through his resurrection.

Please trust me when I express that I could spend a lifetime exploring the profound political implications found in every aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If you are interested in testing this for yourself, I encourage you to give the Gospels a read (or a re-read with fresh eyes).

The early Christians were similarly revolutionary. They sold all of their possessions and ‘had all things in common’ (Acts 2.44). Their existence promoted equality among all people: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). Their faith was so disruptive to the status quo of the Roman Empire that they became enemies of the State. Their very existence was seen as a threat to the security of the Roman Empire – the preservation of their Roman ‘way of life’ (including patriarchy and its corresponding institutional slavery and sexism). They were forced to gather in secret and faced imprisonment, torture and death for their counter-cultural faith.

The issue of faith and politics, in a superficial and highly problematic sense, seems to appeal to the ‘Make America Great Again’ crowd. I have heard it said that ‘America is a Christian nation’ or ‘America used to be a Christian nation’. These views have been expressed by Donald Trump in one form or another. I have several serious concerns regarding this characterisation because of its association of Christianity with the status quo (whether presently or historically). I do not believe that any country can be called a ‘Christian nation’ as I do not believe that Christianity is bound to any human institution (Christendom ≠ Christianity). I believe that Christianity exists to make the kingdom of God a reality for the flourishing of all people and no amount of legislation can make that happen. In other words, no individual, no society, no institution, no government is so perfect that it evades serious, foundational challenge from the Gospel of Christ. This is not to say that individuals, societies, institutions and governments cannot reach for the ideals of the kingdom of God. But this ideal will never be achieved so long as people are governed by insecurity, selfishness and a lust for power and wealth.

Therefore, I believe that the ‘Christian position’ (if such a thing can exist) is one of perpetual opposition. This is not opposition to reason, justice, equity, sound science, etc. Instead, the Christian position reads the ‘signs of the times’ and, through critical reflection, considers how the Gospel of Christ speaks to the present. The Christian position is one that looks at the bodies of murdered people of colour and shouts, ‘Never again!’ The Christian position is one that looks at mass incarceration and shouts, ‘No more!’ The Christian position looks at extravagant wealth in the midst of obscene poverty and shouts, ‘Not on our watch!’ The Christian position looks at the exploitation of the natural world—God’s world—and shouts, ‘We must all change how we live!’ The Christian position is glad to share. The Christian position does not put any one nation ‘first’. The Christian position is desperate for the liberation of all humans from every form of oppression. The Christian position is not afraid of being challenged, of growing, of evolving, because it is self-consciously aware of its own shortcomings, its own inability to get everything right. The Christian position is a perpetual student and servant of the oppressed. The more I expound this ‘Christian position’ the more I see St Paul’s words from his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.[7]

The Christian position is embodied in the person of Christ, the broken, subversive, oppositional Saviour, the Jesus of Nazareth who is the name of love.

Among people in the United States who wish to discredit my political beliefs, I have often heard, ‘You don’t know – you don’t live here.’ The latter part of that statement is true. I have not resided in the United States for over a decade. Some argue that this puts me at a serious disadvantage with regard to meaningful engagement with the political discourse in the United States. While I cannot discount the possibility that I might not have first-hand knowledge of some contemporary experiences, I did spend the majority of my life in the United States. Although my views have continued to grow and change over the years (thanks be to God), some of my most enduring beliefs took root while I was very much a resident of the United States. Additionally, I believe that as someone who has lived outside of the United States for more than a decade, I have reasonable experience of life elsewhere. I believe that this has broadened my perspective. This is not to say that I believe things are all hunky dory where I live now. My oppositional views are not reserved for the United States. I can see both positives and negatives in my adopted country.

On the most basic level, when criticised for living elsewhere, I reiterate that I am a citizen of the United States and I have every right of a citizen of the United States, including the right and civic duty to vote. Having expressed this, my honest admission is that I have not always felt compelled to vote in United States elections since living abroad. This is partly because I was confident in the voting trends of the constituency where I have been registered for more than 16 years. Of course, this is not an excuse, but more of an explanation. If large swathes of society chose not to vote because they believed that their constituency would vote the way they wanted, then very few people would turn up and democracy would be undermined. Mind you, I believe that the Electoral College has already done a stellar job of undermining democracy, at least in terms of presidential elections. The reality that the person with the most representation at the polls is not necessarily the person who wins an election might be quite discouraging for many.

One of the most damning realities that I have faced in choosing to participate fully in this upcoming election is the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 65,853,514 votes, Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes around 100,000,000 eligible voters did not participate. Two out of every five eligible voters did not turn up. I am but one person, but I am one of those 100,000,000. I have not lost any sleep over it, but those figures are enough for me to step up and battle through the awkward bureaucratic hoops required in order to vote from abroad.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have read this and think, ‘Obvious Democrat’ or ‘Obvious Republican’. Maybe the latter is less likely. For the record, I oppose both parties. That is not to say that my idealism overrides my pragmatism with regard to this election. I did cast what might be considered a ‘protest vote’ in 2012. This was not because I was especially unhappy with the Obama Administration at that time (I was unhappy, but I would have been even more discontent with a Romney-Ryan Administration). I voted for Jill Stein, ill-equipped as she might have been, because I had grown very tired of a two-party system where both of those parties are not so far from one another as they would like to believe. And while I believe that, in general, the Democrats and Republicans are different shades of the same political ideology on a broad political spectrum, there has been a vocal shift to the right in the American political landscape over the last decade or so. This is toward a bankrupt politics of ‘again’.

This shift right is not the result of an increased political literacy. Reactionary right-wing language has become normalised by Donald Trump. He views immigrants, especially those who are also people of colour, with disdain. He demonstrates routine bigotry against anyone who is not like him – namely, women and people of colour. He uses derogatory language and tone against other nations, such as China. He acts like a bully toward anyone who might dare to disagree with him. He threatens the free press. He perpetuates conspiracy theories. He refuses to condemn all forms of white supremacy in no uncertain terms. He rejects scientific consensus when it conflicts with his pandering to the powerful. (This has played out in his dangerous environmental policies as well as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.) I cannot trust a person who uses superlatives as loosely as he does. Everything he inherited as president was the ‘worst’, everything he has done has been the ‘best’. He has done ‘more’ for people of colour and for women than any other president in history. Is it not the right of these groups to decide who has done the most for them? At best, Donald Trump is an obscene braggart.

Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the whole of this mean-spirited and deluded political climate. With few exceptions, those from Donald Trump’s own party who once opposed him have thrown their support behind him with reckless abandon. They have adopted his language and demeanour. They have ‘sold their souls’ for a seat at his table.

This is not a rally cry to oppose Donald Trump or the Republican Party. I know that the majority of Americans have already decided who they want in office for the next four years. I only hope that in sharing my thoughts here—random and disjointed as they may be—that some people might be encouraged to keep up with the wrestle between politics and faith (or any other ideology).

I have already cast my ballot for this election. I have researched all of the local measures and candidates. I can only say that I have voted out of a conviction that my faith compels me to challenge all forms of oppression and injustice. I hope that people of all faiths and no faith have done or will do the same.


[1] Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), 74.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009), 256.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse Which ‘Accompanied’ It, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Vintage, 2004), 71.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM, 1974), 128.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV).

Alien in a Strange Land

Spectrum

What I am about to share may be news to some of my friends, but will be no new revelation to a great many others. I now know at the age of 30 what I have suspected for a number of years. It is time for me to emerge from the feigned comfort of a figurative closet, despite my deep longing to seek refuge, and to share with my family, both my biological family and my sociological family, that I live with autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve been reluctant to share this because I believe it will be perceived as me making a mountain out of a molehill. For some, the first thought might be, ‘No you don’t.’ Despite my desire for the opposite to be true, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And while the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as severely impaired (not a ‘weekend’ autism). This is a disability. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this autism throughout my life. I have learned a lot about what is and is not acceptable in social interactions (and I still have much to learn). Some might think, ‘Well, don’t we all have to learn that?’ Once again, I would agree to some extent. But part of what makes an autistic person different is that we lack the social intuition that makes this happen naturally. A bicycle with a flat tyre might roll, but it won’t soon be carrying the winner of the Tour de France. I am grateful for the resources I have discovered to help me get by while seeming relatively ‘normal’. But because this is learned—something ‘put on’ like a jumper—I make mistakes. Sometimes my head ends up in a sleeve or I’ve put it on back-to-front.

My sisters and brothers (and those in between and outwith that dichotomy) who inhabit this strange world whilst living with ASD – though we represent a broad spectrum of ability, we are united in the extraordinary challenges we face and the extraordinary beauty that we embody. For myself, I’m not sure how much of that statement I believe with all of my heart, but I can say that we see the world in a very different way. Sometimes this world is frightening. Sometimes it is a world full of wonder. But it is always an alien world, perceived through a degree of social ineptitude and, for some of us, an oversensitivity to external stimuli that sets us apart from our neurotypical sisters and brothers.

In both the past and the present we have been social outcasts, but this strange world is our world too. We have a voice, whether that is one spoken aloud, through a speech device, or even uttered within our own minds. We are an invaluable part of the fabric of society – without us something essential would be missing.

To be clear, I am no way making myself out to be a spokesperson for all people living with ASD. I am new to this realisation and I can only speak from my experience. But who am I? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’ (with varying degrees of success). I feel that I must do this because of the negative responses I have received for not behaving a certain way. So very much of what many people take for granted as natural practice within social interactions are things that I have had to learn and things with which I continue to struggle. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even a flawed version of ‘normality’. And I’m still learning. When a behaviour is not natural, I make some embarrassing—or even worse—hurtful mistakes. All too often I misinterpret what I am told. When I see someone has a new haircut—stop everything—I must tell them that I’ve noticed, even if they are midsentence. The same goes for other aspects of physical appearance – it’s not okay to point out every feature, especially when someone has a lazy eye or a new plook. When is it my turn to speak? When should I stop talking? Phone calls are a pretty horrendous. These things are just the very tip of my particular autistic iceberg.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ That’s kind of you. Please spend a few hours with me and tell me that I’ve not made any social errors – it’s a rarity. And when we meet, please don’t touch me unless I tell you that it’s okay.

So who am I? To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe none of us can answer that question. For me, I don’t know how to disentangle fully the learned behaviour from the kernel of ‘Elijah’. When presented with of all of the opportunities set before me, it’s very easy to overwork, a vice if ever there was one. I’ve always had a tendency toward busyness. In the face of this busyness, there is a great need for me to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah: the person, the disciple of Jesus. ‘Know thyself’, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, a pre-Socratic maxim featured in Western thought for several thousand years. It is not an unusual challenge. I’m working on it.

I’m not sure if sharing all of this is yet another faux pas, but I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I need to figure out what resources there are to help me on this journey. And if you’d like to help, thank you. I need it. We need it. We need patience and understanding. We need respect and equality. We need love, even if we’re not the best at expressing it.

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com
Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic. Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written. It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus. Please forgive me when I fail at this. All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’ Normally, I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click. Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’ I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me. But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational. Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends. I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them. With that expressed, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same. For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies while Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…). I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey. So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive? Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation? Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that. Many of my atheist friends might say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’. The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning. ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism. But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment. And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people. That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon. So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists. If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear. Now, despite his unpleasant demeanour, I’m starting to side with the dentist. Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’). I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post. It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq). But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist’s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you. If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better. But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense. In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure. This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence). The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world. And while there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society, or at least within the Christian religion. ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil. So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here. In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us. It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical. I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us. This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:13-17)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9). If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God. As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  (Luke 18:35-43)

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  (James 2:5)

I didn’t choose to become a Christian. Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly. It’s the same way with God. It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him. Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that the Western Church has just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus. This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human. As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14)

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19). It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen. God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up. God is here, in our midst. And yet, while I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens. I do believe that God cares. But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, while some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God. The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted. For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt. This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy. It’s never easy. The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it. One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

+++++

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

Will tomorrow be the ‘end of the world’?

Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.

If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.

Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011’ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.

We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).

According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.

Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).

While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,

But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.

(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)

A Random (P)review of David Bazan’s “Strange Negotiations”

I should wait and put a proper set of thoughts together on the new David Bazan album, Strange Negotiations,  that comes out on May 24 for regular folks, but which I received early due to the fact that I’m among an elite corps of Bazan supporters who actually chipped in some cash to finance the recording of this album (thanks to Glen of Someone Tell Me the Story for the heads up on this opportunity).  However, I’m not seeing much time in the weeks ahead for anything much more than a rather random collection of thoughts after about 5-6 full listens…so why not just put it out there now?

A brief background on Bazan:  he had a band called Pedro the Lion back in the 90’s-00’s that was pretty much the coolest thing in the world for a young evangelical Christian to like, though you were never sure if you were supposed to think of them as a “Christian band” or not (which, ultimately, is a good problem to have–DEATH TO CCM).  Bazan’s songwriting was always pretty cutting toward the church and hypocritical Christians, but there was a latent tenderness and spiritual longing underneath (see “The Secret of the Easy Yoke”) along with clever storytelling and wordsmithery (all of Control), and an ear for the lovely juxtaposition of vocal & instrumental melody.  Plus, some of his songs REALLY indie-rocked unbelievably much (see “Magazine”) and he would cuss with great aplomb (most brilliantly on “Foregone Conclusions”).  But his voice was rather sleep-inducingly mellow, his wit often a bit too acidic, and he seemed like his prophetic voice could often switch into Pharisaic condemnation or just plain whiny petulance.  Then, he killed PTL and did an electronic album called (and by?) Headphones that had some great cuts…and some not so great.  Finally, he came out under his own name with an EP (Fewer Moving Parts) that was all depressingly navel-gazing and narcissistic fantasy–I wondered if this would be the end of David Bazan…self-implosion.

Yet he came back with a full-length album Curse Your Branches in 2009 that was a masterpiece of him losing his faith; it is well worth the purchase & repeated listens, not only for the masterfully poignant/angry way he processes the experience of divorcing himself from God/Christianity, but also for his return to all the great songwriting and musicianship he’d evidenced in the past.  And that, in short, brings us to his second solo LP: Strange Negotiations.

That’s a naked woman and a geriatric man in pajamas next to a pool.

Some random observations:

  • Bazan’s voice is no longer sleep-inducing…it’s a sleep-DEPRIVED and mildly intoxicated growl and rasp (like a philosophical Kenny Rogers gone to seed) with certain words carrying a whiskey-flavored drawl that is becoming a Bazan trademark
  • I once heard it said that Bob Dylan wrote two kinds of songs:  one for Him (God) and one for “her” (the elusive love interest, I took it to mean).  I think Bazan writes one kind of song:  for himself.  His songs have become a Molotov cocktail of art therapy, bully pulpit, and bipolar self-aggrandizement/self-loathing.  He is a one-man 12-step group, endlessly telling his own story to himself and we just happen to be passing by the room.  Or he’s like a prophet who grew to love the taste of fiery denunciation, but forgot his audience and wandered off into canyons muttering woe and condemnation to the walls.  I remember thinking a few albums back that Bazan needed to get out of his own head, seeming like he was on an infinite, introspective spiral, destined for a solipsistic hell consisting of his own echo in an empty bottle.  I’m not sure in this album if he’s still heading there or on his way back, yet I still sense that damning self-absorption.  And yet, somehow, in the midst of all of that, he still sees things and says things in such a powerful, brilliant, and infectious way that I can’t help but listen.
  • I wondered if this would be his “post-Christian” album and a number of songs confirm this, but I am hesitant to read that into every song.  It will be interesting to see if he will ever make an album that contains no reference to his disdain for faith, conservatives, or his upbringing.  He definitely seems to want to alienate the final remnants of the old Christian music store fan-base with the naked chick on the cover, his transition in one song from the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” (which PTL covered on one album) to the line, “Fuck the gatekeeper, cause I’m fine outside the gate”, and repeated references to his new found way of seeing the world, free from the provincial boundaries of Christianity.  Again, it’s legitimate for him to process his rejection of faith, but he does it with such monomania.  Encountering the story of Captain Ahab’s hatred of & fixation with the white whale in Moby-Dick is powerful, but you probably don’t care to read sequel after sequel telling the same story, right?

In any case, this is supposed to be thoughts about the album, not a psychological study of Bazan.  The songs basically have two modes on Strange Negotiations:  crunchy electric guitars chording over a tight and driving rhythm, or reflectively quiet/ethereal, with the record heavily leaning to the former.  I offer below some thoughts on most of the tracks on the album, somewhat ordered according to how much I liked them:

  • People“–a hybrid of the two song modes, this is one part acoustic wistfulness looking back on a childhood in the church and one part scorching rocker about how he’s moved beyond all of that.  Besides being a beautiful tone/mood contrast, I think I love this because it’s about coming to terms with one’s heritage as a conservative evangelical Christian (“you are my people”) even as he talks about the cost of being a “truth-teller” in that community (which strikes one as rather patronizing, but still authentic to his experience).  It’s pretty judgmental overall, but it still captures that old balance between longing and disappointment that he had with PTL.
  • Level with Myself“–covering some of the same ground as the previous song, this melodic rocker pokes at the image of waking up in the morning and having a “quiet time” reading Scripture, but feeling like you have to “sell it to yourself.”  In contrast, he says he wants to “level with myself…my friends…and my kin…and be at peace with them”–which I take to mean that he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t believe anymore and he needs others to accept this as well.
  • Don’t Change“–this is an example of when I think Bazan dips into self-loathing, mocking himself and his efforts at self-improvement.  It’s got a lovely vocal and guitar melody over a molasses thick bass line.
  • Strange Negotiations“–haunting (ethereal mode), timeless ballad with echoes of Scripture (prodigal son, writing on the wall, cutting off one’s limb) about inter-personal conflicts.  Includes a lovely acoustic breakdown with Bazan’s lonely howl wordlessly communicating the pain of relational struggle…
  • Won’t Let Go“–what does Bazan have now that he’s chucked his faith and alienated himself from “his people”?  This song points to his marriage as the new anchor in his life.  Another ethereal mode with the EBow all over it.
  • Virginia“–this is the most poignant song on the album, looking back from a position of having lost faith at someone else in the family who was “unsaved” (“we wondered about your personal salvation/was it heaven or hell you saw when your eyes closed?”), but who modeled a transcendence beyond religious categories (“you smiled at us/floating high above the question/like you knew something we didn’t know”) that Bazan now has an appreciation for.  This is a delicate piece, full of deep regret at time wasted on such pettiness (from his new perspective)–which you can hear most tenderly when Bazan’s voice cracks at 3:36…
  • Wolves at the Door“–this seemed to be about religion again, but it could also be more broadly about conservative values.  This opens the album and sets the condemnatory/accepting synthesis with the line, “You’re a goddamn fool…and I love you.”  This is the last of the songs that I actually liked…but that makes 7 out of 10, which sounds like a pretty strong record if you ask me!

If these comments seem very critical, let me balance them all by saying that I think Bazan is one of the best living songwriters and generally a brilliant thinker and lyricist.  I will keep buying his work as long as he puts it out, but I also need to be honest to vocalize my concerns about his self-destructive fixation on himself.  Perhaps this is one of those cases where unhealthy neuroses lead to great art.  I don’t know, cause I can’t do what he does.

However, I need to end my ruminations here…but I would love, so very much, to hear YOUR thoughts on this album when it comes out (or if you already have it).

UPDATE:

Here’s the actual tracklist…

1. Wolves at the Door
2. Level With Yourself
3. Future Past
4. People
5. Virginia
6. Eating Paper
7. Messes
8. Don’t Change
9. Strange Negotiations
10. Won’t Let Go

A Brief Commentary on September Eleventh

I remember exactly where I was ‘when it happened’. Whilst many other major American tragedies like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened before I was born, I was in my second year of high school on 11 September 2001. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the only thing that compared in my lifetime, but it is all but forgotten in the shadow of ‘September Eleventh’.

My older sister came into my room that morning to wake me up as she normally did, but this time she added, ‘An aeroplane crashed into the World Trade Center.’ ‘What?’ She was just as confused as I was and had merely heard the headline on her alarm clock radio. I thought at first, ‘The World Trade Center [near our home] in Long Beach?!’

We went into the family room and turned on the television. We saw live feed of the first tower, billowing smoke, then suddenly another jetliner appeared on screen. My first thought was, ‘Oh God, they actually got video of the crash.’ We knew nothing of a terrorist plot — at this point we assumed it was merely a single tragic aviation accident. But then I realised that we were still watching the live feed; a second plane had hit the second tower of the World Trade Center just after 6 AM, Pacific Standard Time. We watched in horror as reporters pointed out that what appeared to be small pieces of the building falling to the ground were not actually small pieces of the building, but were people. Before we had to leave for school the first tower collapsed.

I would find out later that the second tower collapsed, another plane had hit the Pentagon and yet another plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Throughout the day my teachers suspended their normal lessons. We sat in mourning, much of it in silence. We didn’t know the details of the tragedy, but we did know—and it was stated very explicitly by one teacher that day—that from now on the world would be a different place.

We would all eventually learn that the attacks were the plot of the terrorist group al-Qaeda (which has since become an infamous household name in America) and that in the end nearly 3000 people had been killed in the attacks and an additional 6000 were injured. These tragic events would come to justify the ‘War on Terror’ and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and eventually Iraq. Western society underwent a metamorphosis almost immediately. Alongside institutional changes in national security policy, there was a massive shift in public consciousness. The radical Sunni Islam al-Qaeda was grouped with all Muslims and all people of Western Asian descent—your classmates, your neighbours, your doctor, etc.—could be potential terrorists. We were made to believe that al-Qaeda wanted to kill every last American simply for being American.

People will believe what they want — that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are merely an example of what ‘true Islam’ looks like when fully embraced, that the West is oppressed merely for ‘being different’, that the events of September 11 were primarily a demonstration of a religion and not a political ideology. I cannot buy into these things.

God and the Christian religion are not so small and weak that we need to demonise every other belief system in order to justify our faith. I know why I am not a Muslim. It’s not because Islam is violent or necessarily archaic (and this is in no way a support of so-called ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic nations). I am not a Muslim because in many ways, the the teaching of the Islamic faith about God is different from the teaching of the Christian faith about God. It is the acts of the teaching of the Christian faith about God that call for any sort of adherence. This teaching espouses that God has invested in the creation to the utmost degree through the Incarnation and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is an expression of God’s love for and solidarity with the world, not merely a honourable prophet, as is held by the teaching of Islam. This teaching affirms all people in this solidarity and extends an invitation into the Kingdom and an intimate friendship through the Holy Spirit. The only proper response to such love and grace is a life of love, grace and service.

But the September 11 attacks were not simply attacks on one religion from another religion. America is not a Christian nation and—if you talk to the vast majority of Muslims around the world—al-Qaeda and any who would terrorise others in the name of Allah are not true Muslims. I don’t have a solution for the problems that have been introduced as a result of the tragedy that transpired nine years ago today, but as a Christian I do know that my responsibility is to love, to be just and to seek peace.

May all those who perished on 11 September 2001 rest in peace and may their loved ones be comforted by the God who so thoroughly loves the world.

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Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God

Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian.  In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God.   It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’).   The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:

  1. God is the king of the kingdom
  2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
  3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible.  This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians.  It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later.  First we will briefly analyse these three implications.

1. God is the king of the kingdom

The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam).  The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’.  To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal.  All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.

2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible

In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God.  There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age.  The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign.  This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later.  There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience.  The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’.  I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…

Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible).  The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith.  The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe.  Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’.   Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical.   Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically.  God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it.  The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms.   As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.”  The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.

3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom.  We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.

The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’

Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think.   Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself.   I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’.  What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise.   This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties!  The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.

God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us.  It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church.  Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation.   In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live.  Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.

As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)